“Capital,” John Lanchester’s too-big-to-fail novel about the financial crisis, sounds like an opportunity any sharp reader should invest in. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, of course, but this 50-year-old writer has been an illuminating chronicler of capitalism’s seizures.
In the London Review of Books, among other venues, he has written on everything from the global expansion of Kraft Foods to the future of newspapers (please, God). His greatest asset may be that he has no formal economic training. Dedicated to writing for people “who don’t speak finance,” he never assumes we know how a reciprocal currency arrangement should work. Two years ago, he published “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay,” which provided a global tour of rapacity and stupidity. Blending brilliant financial reporting with irresistible British wit, it was a profitable merger of Michael Lewis, James Surowiecki and Kingsley Amis. Collateralized debt obligations were never so much fun.
But Lanchester is also an accomplished and daring novelist (his first, “The Debt to Pleasure,” won a Whitbread Book Award), and now he has combined his fiction-writing artistry with a reporter’s expertise to capture the financial biodiversity of London in 2008.
From that prospectus, “Capital” seems to be positioning itself as a competitor to Tom Wolfe, even Charles Dickens. The opening chapters rotate through a fantastic variety of characters who live on the same street. The plain houses along Pepys Road were constructed during the late 19th century for middle-class residents, but the 21st-century property boom has raised prices to hysterical levels. “It was like Texas during the oil rush,” Lanchester writes, “except that instead of sticking a hole in the ground to make fossil fuel shoot up from it, all people had to do was sit there and imagine the cash value of their homes rattling upwards so fast that they couldn’t see the figures go round.” As the still-stunned buyer of a tiny house in Bethesda, I was all over this satire like green on cash.
In vivid, short chapters, we meet London residents who have no idea that by the end of the year, a bank in New York will collapse and throw the economy into chaos: They’re young and old, whites and blacks, Englishmen and immigrants (legal and illegal). Clusters of characters cohere around each house on the street, from No. 42, owned by an 82-year-old widow getting knocked through modern medical care, to No. 68, where a Pakistani family runs a small shop and tries to avoid association with radical Muslims. There are African meter maids and Polish handymen, beautiful nannies and jealous assistants, lazy relatives and gifted soccer players — the whole vast complex of people rubbing against one another in a big city, and Lanchester seems to know the colorful minutiae of everybody’s business. He swings from deep sympathy for a Zimbabwean refugee waiting for asylum to tart satire of a financier anticipating his bonus. The effect is like one of those cut-away illustrations that show the interior of every room in an apartment complex.
But forget the bedrooms. In a market saturated with 50 shades of concupiscence, what additional sexual detail could modern fiction possibly reveal? Lanchester knows that what really piques our curiosity is other people’s money, and in one cascading paragraph after another, he unrolls the grand ledger of our desires. That breathless accounting reaches its climax in his portrayal of the Yount family at 51 Pepys Rd. Richard Yount, a handsome investment banker, thinks nothing of spending 30,000 pounds on a hunting rifle for a weekend outing. He’s still capable of feeling a twinge at the “slightly revolting sign of excess,” but he and his wife, Arabella, can barely keep hold of the fire hose of money spraying from their wallets on country homes, designer clothing and exotic vacations. (What most people pay for a car, Arabella spends to redo the lighting in her dressing room.) It’s all itemized here to the nearest 10,000 pounds, along with the network of personal staff meant to keep Richard and Arabella from ever enduring a moment’s interaction with their young children. Written in a voice that captures the Younts’ blithe egotism, this section is the most delightful response I’ve ever read to those execrable stories about how difficult it is to get by on “just” $250,000 a year.
As you can probably tell, there’s a strong populist theme running through Lanchester’s survey of London, a sense that inane distortions at the top of the economic register are ruining life for everyone who actually works for a living by doing something of value. But that lovely liberal ideal crimps the novel’s moral imagination: Its rich people are foolish and extravagant; its poor people are hardworking and ethical. Such a rule does not produce much surprise. Despite his command with the excesses of the period, Lanchester seems unwilling to make us gasp, to confront us with the truly creepy things people will do when cursed by extreme poverty or absurd wealth. The result is a novel that, for all its variety, works from a fairly predictable palette.
That’s disappointing because the early sections of the story are so full of spectacular comedy — and menace. Throughout the novel, all the residents of Pepys Road receive increasingly unnerving postcards that say, “We Want What You Have.” Like the anonymous phone calls in Muriel Spark’s “Memento Mori,” these cards accumulate threatening power. Over many chapters, this element of intrigue seems to be laying the basis for some complex and ominous exploration of class envy, but that mystery just peters out. The various story lines become hard to service, and the book’s initial comedy starts to look like your bank’s teaser rate. The bubble of enthusiasm doesn’t so much pop as leak, and by the end, this long story is something of a labor.
For an alternative reading investment, buy Adam Haslett’s “Union Atlantic” (2010). It’s still the best novel about the recent financial collapse.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor and is on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On June 21, Lanchester will be at Politics & Prose bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919 or visit www.politics-prose.com.
By John Lanchester
Norton. 527 pp. $26.95